Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Someday my Printz will come

Of all the posts I make in a year, the one where I try to predict the Printz winner (I haven't been successful yet, though I did pick one honor book in 2008 and two in 2007) is always my favorite.

Standard disclaimer:
These opinions are mine and mine alone. I have not consulted anyone on the Printz committee about this post. These opinions are completely separate of whatever may come of the BCCLS Mock Printz, which is coming up in a few days. Yes, I have been given copies of some of these books by their publishers and no, that has not had any influence on my thoughts.

How I'm predicting what will win: There seems to be a lot of confusion out there about what the Printz is for, and what kind of books receive it. Allow me to quote from the Printz Award's official website:

What is quality? We know what it is not. We hope the award will have a wide AUDIENCE among readers from 12 to 18 but POPULARITY is not the criterion for this award. Nor is MESSAGE. In accordance with the Library Bill of Rights, CONTROVERSY is not something to avoid. In fact, we want a book that readers will talk about.

Librarianship focuses on individuals, in all their diversity, and that focus is a fundamental value of the Young Adult Library Services Association and its members. Diversity is, thus, honored in the Association and in the collections and services that libraries provide to young adults.

Having established what the award is not, it is far harder to formulate what it is. As every reader knows, a great book can redefine what we mean by quality. Criteria change with time. Therefore, flexibility and an avoidance of the too-rigid are essential components of these criteria (some examples of too-rigid criteria: A realistic hope - well, what about Robert Cormier's Chocolate War or Brock Coles' The Facts Speak for Themselves? Avoiding complicated plot - what about Louis Sachar's Holes? Originality - what about all the mythic themes that are continually re-worked? We can all think of other great books that don't fit those criteria.)

What we are looking for, in short, is literary excellence.

In other words, no one cares what your teens love, or what made you cry, or if you think anyone is going to be reading this book in five years. It's all about the writing. Plot, characterization, voice, story development, etc.

Caveat: I'm only talking about books I've read. There are several books getting Printz buzz that I haven't finished, like Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Also, since it's my blog, my predictions are and can only be limited to what I think makes for a book of literary excellence.

The book everyone thinks will take an honor, but I think otherwise: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Look, no one loves this book more than I. I'm recommending it to anyone who will listen to me talk for more than three minutes. I am on pins and needles waiting for the sequel and I hope that by the time the last book is out it will be a sensation on par with Harry Potter. I don't, however, see it as one of the five most literarilly (I know that's not a word) excellent books this year.

The book no one thinks will take an honor, but I think otherwise: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link. Blah blah short stories literary awards WHAT. EVER. Have you read this book? It's phenomenal, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a fan of short stories. Short stories are so difficult to write well, but Link has it down to a science. She uses just the right words at the right time to give her stories this very eerie quality, yet at the same time they're funny and thought-provoking. This ability to create so much feeling and such a clear yet alternative world in every story makes Link's writing literary.

The three-peat: Paper Towns by John Green. This is the first of Green's books that I feel really deserves the Printz or an honor. And although some have complained that Paper Towns revisits too much of what we saw in Green's previous two novels, I have to ask why we care about that. Past books and merits are not taken into consideration when deliberating the Printz. Every year there's a new committee, and every year there's a clean slate. All that aside, I loved the blend of quirky characters, action, and mysteries hidden in literature. Viva la nerd lit!

The ones that will honor because of language: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Both of these authors have done an outstanding job of using language and narration to build their characters' worlds, one historical and one dystopian. Anderson uses authentic Revolutionary War era language and Ness mixes the visual and auditory, but both are accomplishments of what language can do for both plot and characterization.

The one that will honor because of characterization: Nation by Terry Pratchett. Two teens marooned on an island after a tsunami must find a way to communicate and rebuild their land. As they do so, the island, the Nation, becomes a third character in the story. I'm only part of the way into this book right now (must finish by Friday!), but what's impressing me the most so far is how Pratchett keeps the reader interested in Mau, the boy who leaves his island to become a man, while Mau is alone for a good chunk of the novel. He's got no one to talk to, no other characters to conflict with initally, but the reader still wants to know what happens to him. Pratchett also excels at making Mau's voice distinct from his companion's, an English girl who decides to go by Daphne.

The silent killer: You Know Where to Find Me by Rachel Cohn. No one is talking about this book, but everyone should. I can only imagine the challenge of writing a depressed character who doesn't make the reader want to throw either the book or herself out a window, but Cohn does it. She does it with pathos and wit, too. As is her trademark, she writes about nontraditional families who stick together through terrible times. As is not her trademark, there is not much lighthearted or rompy about this book. There's the pain of a family member's suicide, drug use, and unrequited crushes, and it all makes you want to read more.

The one that stands out: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Of all the books I've listed here it's probably the most popular, and it's the one that seems to mean the most things to the most people. To some it's about feminism. To some it's about power. As I've mentioned before, to me it's about belonging. The other thing I really like about it is that it's in third person. I don't know who passed out the memo that YA should really be in first person, but I wish he hadn't. Most first person really stinks. Now, given Lockhart's talents I believe this book could have been great in first person, but I'm so glad it's in third because
Lockhart was able to use it to impart a sort of wise, sarcastic voice to the narration of Frankie's actions. Point of view is used so well here, it should be recognized for this outstanding accomplishment alone.

The book that should win: Madapple by Christina Meldrum. Weird word choices, provocative plotlines, and a world full of insane characters. YA literature at its finest.

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